With the rash of Top 5 teams falling to unranked opponents, it's starting to feel like March Madness decided to begin a month early.
Duke's loss to Virginia on Thursday was the third straight night David hath slain Goliath, and it's the 19th time that feat has happened this season, per ESPN Stats & Information. As these titillating results keep whisking by on bottom-line tickers, the excitement for the 2013 NCAA tournament is finally working toward its cresting point.
Unfortunately, there are still those pesky regular seasons to finish and conference tournaments to be played. Still, it's never too early to preview spring's greatest holiday and this year's Big Dance draws closer with every passing day.
How close, you ask? Here is a complete breakdown of all the important dates you need to know for this year's NCAA tournament.
2013 NCAA Tournament Scheduling Information
|March 17||Selection Sunday||CBS|
|March 19-20||First Round||UD Arena (Dayton, Ohio)|
|March 21-22||Second Round||Various|
|March 23-24||Third Round||Various|
|Final Four||Georgia Dome (Atlanta)|
|National Championship Game||Georgia Dome (Atlanta)|
Teams to Watch
The Favorite: Indiana Hoosiers
Simply put, stars win out in March. And while they haven't kept their preseason No. 1 ranking wire-to-wire, the Hoosiers remain the most talented team in the nation.
Cody Zeller has made vast improvements as both a rebounder and defender this season, which should make him an attractive option for NBA teams come June. The sophomore center is averaging 16.3 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game while knocking down 57.5 percent of his shots. Ken Pomeroy measures Zeller to be the sixth-most efficient offensive force among players who use 24 percent or greater of their possessions.
He would be a deserving Player of the Year candidate—if only he were even the best player on his own team.
A secondary force for each of his first two seasons in Bloomington, Victor Oladipo has emerged as arguably the best all-around player in the nation. He's scoring 14.1 points while shooting 63.3 percent from the floor and grabbing over five rebounds a night, but that doesn't remotely tell the whole story.
It's his ascendant on-ball defense that has turned Oladipo into a national star. At different points in the season, he has locked down four of the five positions on the floor and done so with ease. He's an absolute menace on the perimeter, badgering ball-handlers with active hands and a top-shelf quickness, but Oladipo also has enough strength to battle down low on switches.
Oladipo has been so good that Dwyane Wade comparisons have been thrown around. We took our crazy pills this morning, so we're not going to go that far. But to say the combination of Zeller and Oladipo holds the keys to the national championship race is a very fair statement.
The Fringe Contender: Michigan Wolverines
The Wolverines likely pushed themselves out of a No. 1 seed with a frustrating month of February. Their loss to Penn State on Wednesday was simply the culmination of a month-long free-fall, where Michigan lost four of its seven games.
If you're looking to play the blame game, it starts with cratering effort on the defensive end.
According to Ken Pomeroy's advanced ratings system, the Wolverines now rank 59th in defensive efficiency. That's the third-worst efficiency of any team inside the top 20 of his overall rankings. They are also one of the worst teams in the nation at forcing turnovers and rank 158th in effective field goal percentage against.
Pacing slows down every March—even this one when teams are already moving at the pace of a snail stuck in honey-covered molasses—so it will be interesting to see how Michigan fares when its defense is taken to task.
Their saving grace may well be on offense. Pomeroy ranks the Wolverines' offense as second-best in the country, and they rank inside the top 10 in effective field goal percentage and turnover rate.
Much of the credit for that efficiency will fall at the feet of Trey Burke—and deservedly so. He is the best shot-creator in the nation, both for himself and others. If Michigan is going to make as much noise this March as predicted in the preseason, Burke must step his game up to heights we haven't quite seen yet from the sophomore. Otherwise, the Wolverines' defense may just lead to an early-round undoing.
The Sleeper: Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders
The Blue Raiders are the best team you've never heard of. A motley crew of players who have a lower Google Q rating than you or I, Middle Tennessee wins the way we've seen so many Cinderellas in the past: team-wide efficiency.
Led by head coach Kermit Davis, the Raiders are one of the most tenacious defensive teams in the country. Employing a full-court scheme mostly predicated on creating turnovers, Pomeroy's metrics put Middle Tennessee 14th in turnover rate and 26th in defensive efficiency.
Though there is usually a difficulty in finding players willing to employ this full-court system consistently, that isn't the case. Davis has compiled a group of hard-nosed athletic marvels who were designed to wreak havoc on opposing offenses. The Raiders go 10 deep on their bench, with each of those rotation players getting more than 10 minutes per contest.
One problem: It's highly questionable that Middle Tennessee makes the Big Dance without a conference tournament victory. The Raiders have steamrolled their way through the Sun Belt during the regular season, losing just once, but that's all it takes when tournament time rolls around.
In that case, the Raiders' fate will depend entirely on how the other tournaments go. That being said, if they are playing come Thursday or Friday, you may want to pencil them into the second round regardless of opponent.
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